Probably one of the most talented musicians of the twentieth century, success came at a very high price for him, and eventually became his downfall.
Nilsson was born in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, New York, in 1941. His paternal grandparents were Swedish circus performers and dancers, especially known for their “aerial ballet” (which is the title of one of Nilsson’s albums). His father, Harry Edward Nilsson, Jr., abandoned the family three years later. An autobiographical reference to this is found in the opening to Nilsson’s song “1941″:
Well, in 1941, the happy father had a son
And in 1944, the father walked right out the door
Nilsson’s “Daddy’s Song”, and “Cuddly Toy” recorded by The Monkees, also refer to this period.
Nilsson grew up with his mother Bette and his younger half-sister. His younger half-brother Drake was left with family or friends during their moves between California and New York, sometimes living with a succession of relatives and stepfathers. His Uncle John, a mechanic in San Bernardino, California, helped Nilsson improve his vocal and musical abilities.
He had a half-brother and a half-sister through their mother. He also had three half-sisters and one half-brother through his father.
Due to the poor financial situation of his family, Nilsson worked from an early age, including a job at the Paramount Theatre in Los Angeles. When the Paramount closed, Nilsson applied for a job at a bank, falsely stating he was a high school graduate on his application (he only completed ninth grade).He had an aptitude for computers, which were beginning to be employed by banks at the time. He performed so well that the bank retained him after discovering the lie about his education. He worked on bank computers at night, and in the daytime pursued his songwriting and singing career.
As early as 1958, Nilsson was intrigued by emerging forms of popular music, especially rhythm and blues artists like Ray Charles. He had made early attempts at performing while he was working at the Paramount, forming a vocal duo with his friend Jerry Smith and singing close harmonies in the style of the Everly Brothers. The manager at a favorite hangout gave Nilsson a plastic ukulele, which he learned to play, and he later learned to play the guitar and piano. In the 2010 documentary Who is Harry Nilsson? (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him), Nilsson recalled that when he could not remember lyrics or parts of the melodies to popular songs, he created his own, which led to writing original songs.
Uncle John’s singing lessons, along with Nilsson’s natural talent, helped when he got a job singing demos for songwriter Scott Turner in 1960. Turner paid Nilsson five dollars for each track they recorded. (When Nilsson became famous, Turner decided to release these early recordings, and contacted Nilsson to work out a fair payment. Nilsson replied that he had already been paid — five dollars a track.).
In 1963, Nilsson began to have some early success as a songwriter, working with John Marascalco on a song for Little Richard. Upon hearing Nilsson sing, Little Richard reportedly remarked: “My! You sing good for a white boy!”Marascalco also financed some independent singles by Nilsson. One, “Baa Baa Blacksheep”, was released under the pseudonym “Bo Pete” to some small local airplay. Another recording, “Donna, I Understand”, convinced Mercury Records to offer Nilsson a contract, and release recordings by him under the name “Johnny Niles.”
In 1964, Nilsson worked with Phil Spector, writing three songs with him. He also established a relationship with songwriter and publisher Perry Botkin, Jr., who began to find a market for Nilsson’s songs. Botkin also gave Nilsson a key to his office, providing another place to write after hours.
Nilsson’s recording contract was picked up by Tower Records, which in 1966 released the first singles actually credited to him by name, as well as the debut album Spotlight on Nilsson. None of Nilsson’s Tower releases charted or gained much critical attention, although his songs were being recorded by Glen Campbell, Fred Astaire, The Shangri-Las, The Yardbirds, and others. Despite his growing success, Nilsson remained on the night shift at the bank.
Nilsson signed with RCA Victor in 1966 and released an album the following year, Pandemonium Shadow Show, which was a critical (if not commercial) success. Music industry insiders were impressed both with the songwriting and with Nilsson’s pure-toned, multi-octave vocals. One such insider was Beatles press officer Derek Taylor, who bought an entire box of copies of the album to share this new sound with others. With a major-label release, and continued songwriting success (most notably with The Monkees, who had a hit with Nilsson’s “Cuddly Toy” after meeting him through their producer Chip Douglas), Nilsson finally felt secure enough in the music business to quit his job with the bank. Monkees member Micky Dolenz maintained a close friendship until Nilsson’s death in 1994.
Some of the albums from Derek Taylor’s box eventually ended up with the Beatles themselves, who quickly became Nilsson fans. This may have been helped by the track “You Can’t Do That”, in which Nilsson covered one Beatles song but added 22 others in the multi-tracked background vocals. When John Lennon and Paul McCartney held a press conference in 1968 to announce the formation of Apple Corps, John was asked to name his favorite American artist. He replied, “Nilsson”. Paul was then asked to name his favorite American group. He replied, “Nilsson”.
He started hanging out with the Beatles, more specifically, John Lennon. After the huge success of his album, Nilsson Schmilsson, he started really abusing cigarettes, alcohol and drugs. His voice started to decline, he was difficult to work with in the studio, and eventually his record company bought his contract out.
Nilsson suffered a massive heart attack in 1993. After surviving that, he began pressing his old label, RCA, to release a boxed-set retrospective of his career, and resumed recording, attempting to complete one final album. He finished the vocal tracks for the album with producer Mark Hudson, who still retains the tapes of that session.
On January 15, 1994, Nilsson died of heart failure in his Agoura Hills, California home. According to his wife, they had been watching Enchanted April, and the last thing he told her before she fell asleep was, “I love you so much.”During Nilsson’s funeral on January 17, aftershocks from the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake were felt.
For a real good documentary on Harry Nilsson, I would recommend watching the movie, Who is Harry Nilsson? (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)
Said to be one of three songs that deal with his autobiography, 1941 sings about what it was like growing up with a father who left out of his life at a very early age, and having to live in poverty until he left home at fifteen. The song goes on to talk about how he followed the same pattern his father did when he walked out on his wife and child.
“When I started ’1941′, I wanted to write a song revolving around a number. So I thought I’d write a song about a year. First I tried ’1944′. It didn’t work. Then I tried ’1941′. Yes, it clicked! Originally, I had planned it to be a war song.” — Harry Nilsson
Well in 1941 a happy father had a son
And by 1944 the father walked right out the door
And in ’45 the mom and son were still alive
But who could tell in ’46 if the two were to survive
Well the years were passing quickly
But not fast enough for him
So he close his eyes through ’55
And he opened them up again
When he looked around he saw a clown
And the clown seemed very gay
And he set that night to join that circus clown and run away
Well he followed every railroad track
An every highway sign
And he had a girl in each new town
And the towns he left behind
And the open road
Was the only road he knew
But the color of his dreams
Slowly turning into blue
The he met a girl the kind of girl
He wanted all his life
She was soft and kind and good to him
So he took her for a wife
And they got a house not far from town
And in a little while
The girl had seen the doctor
And she came home with a smile
Now in 1961 a happy father had a son
And by 1964 the father walked right out the door
And in ’65 the mom and son were still around
But what will happen to the boy
When the circus comes to town?
- Audio from the 1967 album, Pandemonium Shadow Show: